EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — With dynamite and bulldozers, Egypt's army demolished dozens of homes along its border with the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, after the military ordered residents out to make way for a planned buffer zone meant to stop militants and smugglers.
The plan to clear 10,000 residents from some 800 houses over just several days has angered the area's already disgruntled population, which has long held grievances with Cairo.
"To throw 10,000 people into the street in a second, this is the biggest threat to national security," said Ayman Mohsen, whose sister left her house located 350 meters from the border. Speaking to The Associated Press via online messages, he said the army told residents to leave on Tuesday within 48 hours, and that houses would be blown up even if people remain inside.
Over the past decade, the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula has become a hub for Islamic extremists, although insurgency has spiked since last year's military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. It has also spread to other parts of Egypt, with militants targeting police in Cairo and the Nile Delta.
The move to set up the planned 13-kilometer (8-mile) buffer zone, which will be 500 meters (yards) wide, comes after militants attacked an army checkpoint near Sheikh Zuweyid town last week, killing 31 soldiers. No group claimed responsibility.
After the attack, Egypt declared a three-month state of emergency and dawn-to-dusk curfew there and indefinitely closed the Gaza crossing, the only non-Israeli passage for the crowded strip with the world.
Mona Barhomaa, a female activist who lives 800 meters from the border and who is not affected by evacuation order, said she supported the demolitions.
"The tunnels to me are like windows that for years my neighbors have used to infiltrate my house," she said, referring to the underground passageways used to smuggle goods and weapons. "The tunnels led us into this hellish situation."
Many residents however were agitated by the short notice and poor local organization, as well as a hostile media campaign unleashed days earlier that saw private and public television commentators equating opposition to the plan with treason.
Tanks and armored vehicles sealed off all of Rafah as thick grey smoke rose in the sky each time demolition charges went off and another house was toppled. Bulldozers knocked down other buildings as residents hurriedly left them, loading furniture, luggage, and personal belongings into pickup trucks before handing their houses over to the army for destruction.
"People are in a state of shock but helpless at the same time," said Ahmed Aetaa, who lives in nearby Sheikh Zuweyid town and who is in touch with friends packing and leaving their homes in Rafah, where the main border crossing is located.
The corridor will eventually be monitored by surveillance cameras, and feature a water-filled trench that will be 40 meters wide, 20 meters deep and run all along the border to the Mediterranean Sea, officials said.
The border area is most populated in Rafah, a city that was split into two halves — one Palestinian and one Egyptian — after Egypt signed the Camp David accord with Israel in 1978. Plans to create a buffer zone along the Gaza border started after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Hamas used the tunnels as a way to escape an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on Gaza.
Previous administrations had tried but failed to implement similar measures to stop the endemic smuggling with the Palestinian territory, although they all backed down before protests by residents, who see the evacuation as forced displacement.
In an attempt to assuage residents' frustration, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ordered local authorities to quickly give compensation to residents who left their homes. "Egypt will never forget its honorable people of Sinai, their well-documented patriotic stances and their sacrifices to the nation," he said through spokesman Alaa Youssef.
The statement however came in stark contrast to the previous days' media campaign against residents who opposed the plan, summed up in the words of retired Gen. Abdel-Moneim Said.
"They are either traitors, not aware of the dangers or have other purposes that we all know," state news agency MENA quoted him as saying.
Michael reported from Cairo